Labour tenants to be first in line

This land is our land: A class action suit is attempting to force the government to implement a 22-year-old law that will help tenants to claim the land they live on. (Madelene Cronjé)

This land is our land: A class action suit is attempting to force the government to implement a 22-year-old law that will help tenants to claim the land they live on. (Madelene Cronjé)

Labour tenants, who work for a landowner in exchange for the right to use a portion of the land for their sustenance, could be the first beneficiaries of the government’s policy to expropriate land without compensation.

Following his State of the Nation address earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa explained that labour tenants would be one of the three groups that land expropriation without compensation would target as its beneficiaries.

Ramaphosa noted that the much-debated expropriation process would help the department of rural development and land reform to expedite labour tenants’ claims.

He said this formed part of his plan to increase agricultural productivity and employment opportunities in rural areas by bringing more producers into the sector.

“Expropriation without compensation is envisaged as one of the measures to be used to accelerate redistribution of land to black South Africans,” he said. “We need to determine collectively how we can implement this measure in a way that promotes agricultural production, improves food security, advances rural development, reduces poverty and strengthens our economy.”

Ramaphosa, who is on an investment roadshow in London this week, told Bloomberg TV that land reform would expand the economy and “unlock levers of growth around land”.

Reform measures to benefit labour tenants have had a limited effect to date. A class-action suit involving 19 000 such tenants in three provinces — KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga — to force the government to implement a 1996 Act that protects labour tenants and makes provision for them to claim the land they live on, is underway.

A land advocacy group, the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra), with the help of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), launched the class-action case against the department of rural development and land reform in July 2013.

A director at Afra, Laurel Oettle, told the Mail & Guardian that the success of land expropriation without compensation would depend on the political will and intentions of the ANC.

“If the ANC genuinely has its heart behind effective redress, then labour tenants should be at the forefront of cases on which expropriation without compensation is tested,” she said.

An attorney at the LRC, Thabiso Mbhense, agreed that expropriating land without compensation would speed up land reform and ensure that labour tenants get to own the land they occupy.

Mbhense said that expropriation would ensure that land was transferred to individual labour tenants and would resolve issues such as price inflation claimed by land owners.

Oettle said the class action lawsuit was not an attack on the land reform department, but if it succeeded, it would ensure that labour tenants were acknowledged by the government.

“It is to restore faith, hope and a sense of dignity — and, more importantly, for citizens to feel that they matter and that the government that promised to return their land and protect their ancestry is taking this seriously enough to implement new measures to make sure their claims are finally processed,” she said.

The Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act of 1996 allows for labour tenants to claim ownership.

Although the Act was signed in 1996, the government has moved sluggishly in processing labour tenants’ claims.

Department spokesperson Linda Page told the M&G that “9 747 out of a total of 20 324 applications that were submitted by March 31  2001” had been processed.
Page attributed the slow pace to the complex procedure for pursuing claims set out in the Act.

“There were disputes with owners of land to which the application relates, and the adversarial court processes often produced disappointing results for labour tenants as owners took every technical legal point in opposition to the applications,” she said.

Arbitration efforts, provided for in the Act, did not work and in some instances, when a land owner was issued with a notice of a pending land claim, labour tenants and their associates would be threatened with eviction from the properties concerned, Page added.

She said that generally, labour tenants preferred being accommodated on larger and more viable portions of land offered by the alternative land reform programmes, and to be incorporated in restitution settlements where there were overlapping restitution and labour tenancy rights.

But Afra’s Oettle said it believed the reason for the delays in processing the tenant farmers’ claims was the result of a lack of will by the department. It appeared that the department did not have the capacity to manage the thousands of applications and had failed to issue title deeds, she said.

The LRC’s Mbhense added that there had been “negative consequences in that the state refuses to buy such land for labour tenants. This forces the state to look for alternative means of settling labour tenant claims, like forcing labour tenants to take alternative land instead of the land that they have claimed.”

The department has now appointed a senior official to manage the processing of labour tenant applications as part of speeding up the claims process, Page told the M&G.

A project plan has been developed with detailed tasks and timelines, which include tracing labour tenant applicants, issuing notice of these applications to land owners and publishing them in the Government Gazette by September 30.

Thulebona Mhlanga is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian

​Thulebona Mhlanga

​Thulebona Mhlanga

Thulebona Mhlanga is financial trainee journalist  at the Mail & Guardian, currently enrolled for a masters in politics at the University of Johannesburg. In addition to her fervent interest in business writing, reading and educating others around issues of financial literacy, she volunteers her time to projects assisting women and promoting social justice.  Read more from ​Thulebona Mhlanga

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